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The trouble at TIFF: Where are the crowds?

An outdoor sign on the front of the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.

"This is probably naiveté on my part," Piers Handling confessed the other day. But "there was a kind of feeling of 'you build it, they will come.' Especially after 10 years of raising almost $200-million and especially with the brand of the Toronto International Film Festival, the excitement of TIFF.

"[But then]you realize," he continued, "that people actually have to work out what this building is all about, what's in here, on a daily, a weekly basis.… You realized you had to roll up your shirt sleeves and get your hands really, really dirty."

"This building" is the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the purpose-built headquarters of what is perhaps Canada's most internationally renowned cultural event. Raised in downtown Toronto as the five-storey podium of a 40-storey condominium, the Lightbox opened for business in September, 2010, more than three years after groundbreaking. Included within its rather austere façade were no fewer than five state-of-the-art cinemas.

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People have come. But not, it seems, in the numbers TIFF CEO and director Handling and his 145 full-time employees might have been hoping, as figures released this week, on the eve of the publication of TIFF's 2011 annual report, show.

Last year marked the first full year of operations for the Lightbox, the first time in TIFF's then-36-year history that the festival was able to use all five Lightbox cinemas for its entire September run. The success, prestige and chic of the festival are indisputable, of course. But it's one thing to run a sharply defined 11-day event carried on the celebrity-stoked momentum of an illustrious history, quite another to make a go of a new, expensive building with an obscure mandate ("transforming the way people see the world through film," in the words of TIFF chief operating officer Michèle Maheux), requiring a steady influx of customers, 365 days a year.

No question the Lightbox is at a crucial, even existential moment in its brief history. Now that it exists, amid the bars, restaurants and clubs in the heart of Canada's largest city, can its management put more bums in its 1,400 seats, walk that line between cinematic integrity and commercial viability? Can it capture some of the special fizz of the festival? Is it doomed to become one more multiplex?

Worrying numbers

A look at the Lightbox's box-office performance last year highlights the issues. TIFF this week reported it screened, exclusive of festival films, 46 new releases at the Lightbox in 2011 (37 of which were exclusives), plus another 40 "limited-release" titles like the 70-mm versions of Lawrence of Arabia and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

According to receipts tracker Rentrak Corp., the 86 pictures grossed about $1.1-million, including taxes. Use, for argument's sake, an average ticket price of $10 (the Lightbox, in fact, has a bewildering array of ticket prices), and it appears the Lightbox had around 110,000 attendees for its new and limited releases in 2011.

Further, if one subtracts whatever distribution fee is involved, it's possible these new and limited releases contributed, in net terms, between $600,000 and $700,000 to TIFF's total revenue of $32.1-million in 2011. Those numbers are seriously problematic if the Lightbox is looking to the box office for a major share of its income.

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The situation appears to be improving this year – evidence perhaps of Handling's assertion that "we're getting stronger and stronger by the month." According to Rentrak, gross box-office receipts for the Lightbox's first quarter are almost $570,000, buoyed by strong performances by the Oscar-nominated 3-D documentary Pina and Quebec's Genie-winning Monsieur Lazhar..

The Lightbox now has a gift shop on its main floor and a second-level concession stand. It also gets a share of revenue from the two restaurants on its premises and will be the landlord for an opticians shop set to open later this year. However, in negotiations with the developer, King and John Festival Corp., TIFF failed to get a cut on parking revenue from the facility's underground lot – a definite fail. Two blocks to the east of the Lightbox, Roy Thomson Hall, home of the Toronto Symphony, nets about $1.4-million from below-grade parking each year.

In the meantime, grants from the public sector, particularly from the Ontario government, have been a life-saver for TIFF – and a testimony of sorts to the almost "too-big-to-fail" stature it has in the cultural marketplace. Not only did the McGuinty Liberals provide $35-million toward the Lightbox capital campaign, when it appeared, in spring 2009, that the Lightbox fundraising campaign might fall short of its $196-million goal, they quietly agreed to bankroll a low-interest loan of $46-million, amortized over 15 years.

The loan continues to be a boon. To ensure a robust start-up for the Lightbox, the TIFF board agreed in late 2009 to run what it termed a "managed deficit" of almost $6-million over three years, using loan money to cover off each year's loss. (The 2011 annual report presents the official deficit for that year as almost $1.7-million.) But in an age of austerity, reliance on continued government largesse hardly constitutes a strategic plan.

What is the Lightbox?

For Handling, "the biggest risk" for the Lightbox is its curated, museum-style exhibitions on its main floor, among them the five-month salute to director Tim Burton it held starting in late 2010. Adapted from materials provided by New York's Museum of Modern Art, the show and related programming were a hit attendance-wise, drawing 111,000 paying visitors – but it was expensive and the return on investment relatively modest. Since then the exhibition program has mixed semi-hits (the 2011-12 Grace Kelly show drew 48,000 attendees) with flops (Fellini Spectacular Obsessions, running last summer had about 10,000 visitors). For Paul Atkinson, TIFF board chair since 2007, "the issue going forward is how do we hit home runs more regularly in that space with things that mesh with our audiences."

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This week TIFF announced it would host, for three months, starting in late October, the North American premiere of Designing 007: 50 years of Bond Style, organized by London's Barbican Centre. Clearly the Lightbox hopes it has a home run on its hands, one that reaches out to and hopefully ensnares what Handling calls "the larger audience base."

Is Handling up for the job, for getting the crowds without sullying the brand?? Will Bond prove a form of bondage? Sixty-three in July, a Queen's University graduate and David Cronenberg scholar, Handling's moved steadily through TIFF's ranks since being hired as a programmer in 1982. He says he feels "healthy" and "completely engaged" and would like to continue at TIFF for the next six or seven years.

But it's clear he, as well as Maheux, another up-through-the-ranks alumnus, have heard the grousing as to whether their skills are the right ones for the years ahead and how the Lightbox and TIFF now might be better served, on the business side at least, by a general manager festooned with the appropriate MBA credentials.

Both Handling and Maheux acknowledge they've "really had to stretch" themselves to meet the Lightbox challenge but they assert – and Atkinson concurs – that TIFF has been making several business-savvy hires in recent years, including ones for a vice-president of sales, marketing and new business strategy and a chief financial officer.

"If we do need help in certain areas, we're not opposed to that," Handling said. Meanwhile, work continues on a new five-year strategic plan, to be unveiled later this year.

"One has to be patient, we have to be disciplined," Handling averred. "To be honest, we don't have the marketing budget [it's about $5-million this year] of a Royal Ontario Museum or Art Gallery of Ontario to probably market the entire [Lightbox]properly. We have to build towards that … like we did with the early days of the film festival."

There's a "brand promise with TIFF," he added. "And I don't think we want to stray very far from what that is."

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